Current Revisions to NEPA Procedures (36 CFR 220)
The USDA Forest Service is revising its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations. These regulations are a key component of how the agency performs environmental analysis and makes decisions. NEPA requires agencies to analyze the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. This process helps the Forest Service in its mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the America’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.
The Forest Service released the proposed rule on June 13, 2019, initiating a 60-day public comment period and a 120-day Tribal consultation period. On August 9, 2019, the Forest Service extended the comment period by 14 days, concluding on August 26, 2019.
The Forest Service is currently reviewing and analyzing the comments received. These comments will be used to inform development of the final rule. View comments.
Information on the proposed rule and how to access the recordings from the webinars is included below.
Why is the Forest Service doing this?
The USDA Forest Service last updated its NEPA regulations in 2008. Since then, challenges like extended droughts, insect infestations and diseases have made the effort to protect people, communities and resources from threats like catastrophic wildfires even more difficult. Together, these challenges have strained available staff and resources across all our mission areas.
The proposed rule will help the Forest Service make timelier decisions based on high quality, science-based analysis. This improves the Forest Service’s ability to get work on the ground while meeting our environmental stewardship responsibilities. The updates in the proposed rule incorporate lessons learned and experience gained from our staff and partners over the past 10 years. Check out more information on the National Environmental Policy Act.
Basic Frequently Asked Questions
The Forest Service is trying to better serve the American people by doing everything it can to improve the health and resilience of forests, create jobs, and provide economic benefits.
The agency has faced challenges due to trends of decreased funding and personnel because resources are increasingly being spent each year on wildfire. In 1995, wildland fire management funding made up just 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual spending. In 2018 that spending accounted for 57 percent of the agency budget. There has also been a similar shift in staff to fire programs. There has been a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel since 1995.
More than 80 million acres of land the Agency manages still need to be treated to mitigate risk for fire and disease. This created a backlog of forest, watershed, and range restoration projects. Additionally, the majority of environmental decisions the Forest Service makes relate to special use permits. More than 5,000 of these new special use permits or renewals are awaiting environmental analysis and decision affecting more than 7,000 businesses and 120,000 jobs.
The Forest Service’s NEPA regulations still mostly reflect the policies and practices established by the 1992 NEPA Manual and Handbook. The proposed rule would modernize the agency’s NEPA policy by incorporating experience and lessons learned over the last several decades.
The proposed rule produces timelier high quality, science-based decisions improving the Forest Service’s ability to efficiently get work done on the ground.
The proposed rule is the result of expert input provided by agency professionals and public input gathered during the public comment period.
In January 2018, the Forest Service published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register, including a 30-day public comment period. Nearly 35,000 comments were received and carefully considered in the development of the proposed rule.
In early 2018, the Forest Service conducted a series of Regional and National-level stakeholder roundtable meetings for additional public involvement and to help inform development of the proposed rule.
The Forest Service also participated in stakeholder roundtable sessions conducted nationwide. While these sessions were broader in scope than the agency’s NEPA policies, the proposed rule reflects relevant input from the sessions.
Highlights of the proposed rule include:
- Reordering the sections of the regulation to flow from general guidance to categorical exclusion (CE), environmental assessment (EA), and environmental impact statement (EIS).
- Adding concepts that provide opportunities for efficiency such as the Determination of NEPA Adequacy. Determination of NEPA Adequacy can reduce redundant analysis and is consistent with the Council on Environmental Quality’s NEPA regulations.
- Codifying existing practices such as condition-based management to provide clear and consistent direction to encourage more widespread use. Agency experience has shown that condition-based management can provide flexibility to account for changing conditions on the ground over time.
- Modifying scoping requirements so public engagement and scoping is appropriate for each proposed action. The public will continue to be notified of all projects being analyzed under NEPA with a decision memo (categorical exclusion), environmental assessment, or environmental impact statement through the Schedule of Proposed Actions.
- Adding several new categorical exclusions and revising a few existing categorical exclusions. The new categorical exclusions are for projects with activities for restoration, roads and trails management, recreation and administrative facility management, and special use authorizations.
The proposed changes provide for discretion and flexibility in our scoping and public engagement based on what is appropriate for the project. The Forest Service will continue providing public notice in the Schedule of Proposed Actions (SOPA) which surpasses many other federal agencies. Additional scoping and public engagement opportunities are at the discretion of the responsible official. The responsible official may choose to conduct additional public engagement activities to involve key stakeholders and interested parties. Notice and comment will still be provided for EAs subject to the Forest Service objections process. Scoping will still be required for EISs in accordance with Council on Environmental Quality requirements.
These changes will allow national forests and grasslands to concentrate resources on projects that are potentially more complex or have greater public interest. Increased discretion and flexibility can result in more transparency, provide timelier response to public needs, and accelerate decision making.
The Forest Service has been analyzing and conducting forest management for decades. The agency has found that in certain cases, the environmental effects of some activities have not been individually or cumulatively significant. The Forest Service’s vast experience predicting and evaluating the environmental effects of its activities has led to the proposal of several new categorical exclusions (CEs) and revisions to a few existing CEs in the proposed rule.
The suite of new CEs proposed would be used for restoration projects, road and trail management, administrative and recreation site management, and special use authorizations. These were developed in accordance with Council on Environmental Quality guidance, and based on:
- a review and analysis of past agency actions and their associated NEPA documentation
- input from subject matter experts
- review and comparison of CEs implemented by other federal agencies
The Forest Service has prepared supporting statements which summarize the administrative record and rationale for the new CEs. These materials are available for review.
Every proposed action must be consistent with agency procedures, applicable land management plans, and applicable federal and state environmental laws. The proposed rule does not change any of these requirements. Proposed actions will continue to be developed using an interdisciplinary approach to ensure consistency and compliance with laws, regulations, and policies.
There is a unique relationship between federal government and native tribes including additional legal requirements for consultation and communication. The Forest Service takes these responsibilities seriously and will reach out to communicate and consult with tribal officials as requested.
The Forest Service will also propose revisions to the Forest Service Handbook (FSH 1909.15) and Forest Service Manual (FSM 1950). FSM 1950 provides descriptions of Forest Service National Environmental Policy Act authority, objectives, policy, and responsibilities. FSH 1909.15 provides guidance which interprets procedures from the Council on Environmental Quality and Forest Service. We anticipate publishing the proposed directives in January followed by an additional public comment period. A subsequent notice will announce the availability of the proposed directives and list information on how to comment on the proposed directives. When the notice is published, a copy of the proposed directives will be posted to the NEPA Revisions website.
The Forest Service will analyze the input and consult agency experts to address concerns and develop the final rule and final directives after the public comment period. The Forest Service expects to publish the rule revising the Forest Service National Environmental Policy Act regulations and associated directives in summer 2020.
Proposed Rule and Supporting Documents
- 36 CFR 220 Proposed Rule Comment Period Extension - Federal Register Notice (.pdf - 94 KB)
- 36 CFR 220 Proposed Rule – Federal Register Notice (.pdf - 407 KB)
- Supporting Information for Proposed Categorical Exclusions
- Proposed Rule Detailed Frequently Asked Questions (.pdf - 148 KB)
- Proposed Rule Fact Sheet (.pdf - 2.66 MB)